In a writer’s life, critiques are as unavoidable as death and taxes. And like death and taxes, feedback and editorial remarks are often a source of stress, fear, and general unpleasantness. But there’s no absolutely no reason this should be so.
In fact, I’ve come to believe that critiques are the single most useful learning tool available to a writer. Not only that, but the ability to give and take feedback seems to be a hallmark of the serious writer. So it would be beneficial to learn how to deal with giving and receiving feedback – and I think I can contribute to that conversation.
In this and the next few posts, I’ll be sharing a few things I’ve learned from my own critiquing experiences*. Hopefully you find something useful. Let’s get started!
I feel pretty confident stating that perfectionism is problematic whenever it shows up, no matter the circumstance. It is born of fear and ego – a fear of rejection that presses you to pursue unreasonable standards, and to project a facade when meeting those standards proves impossible. Perfectionism can sometimes push you to excel, but more often it freezes you in place, makes things feel hopeless, torpedos your self-confidence. I know this because I battle with perfectionism all the time.
In writing, perfectionism can keep you from submitting or finishing a story. It can prevent you from even starting. When seeking feedback on your stories, perfectionism can be the root of guilt, fear, and poor productivity. It can prevent you from seeing the good in your stories and stunt your growth as a writer. When the impossible standards of perfectionism extend to judging other writers’ work, they can result in harsh critiques that do more harm than good.
Bringing what you think is a perfect story to a critique group is a waste of time. Praise is not what you want. It isn’t helpful. You aren’t trying to impress them. You want to get their feedback early enough in the process that you will be able to use it to strengthen the story. That means don’t bring a final draft. At the same time, it is hard to see beyond grammatical and awkward sentences to the story beyond. It is considerate and good form to bring a story you’ve cleaned up enough to be readable.
Recognize that your critiquers are there to support you. They are writers in the same position you are, probably with many of the same hang-ups. Let yourself be vulnerable by showing things a little earlier than you are comfortable with, and you might be surprised by the new ideas that can be sparked by the conversations about an unfinished piece. Learn to have confidence that you can fix anything – it helps me to keep in mind that I have as many drafts as I want to fix things.
Last, there are people out there who are not interested in other people’s success. There are also people you will not mesh with, whose critiques (even with the best of intentions behind them) are honestly unhelpful or destructive (note that I do not mean they give you their honest, sometimes-negative opinions). You are justified in putting distance between yourself and these people. There is no point in maintaining a critique partnership that does not help you to grow as a writer.
If you are a perfectionist, it is easy to get frustrated with pieces that do not meet your personal standards. But you aren’t reading for pleasure. There are going to be things wrong in the piece, that’s the whole point. Trust that the writer will be able to use what you’ve given them to bring their story up to scratch (and even if they don’t, it isn’t your story). Be patient with the errors you find, even if the errors repeat over and over again. We all have blind spots, and sometimes we need them pointed out many times.
In addition, think carefully about how you phrase things. If you have a penchant for harsh self-speak (argh, this sucks, I suck, I’ll never get published), then it is likely to come out in your comments on other people’s work. Honest is necessary, harsh is not. It has helped me to learn to view my comments as opinions and suggestions, not rules or corrections.
The Voices in Our Heads
The problem with writers giving critiques is that we’ve all got loud voices in our heads. When I read a phrase that I would have constructed differently, even if it is technically correct, I’m trained to rearrange it to what is most pleasing to me. That’s my voice, or my predilection for certain words and phrasings and story structures. I spend a great deal of time cultivating my voice, because it is one of the few things that belongs uniquely to me. I like it, depend on it, and trust it above all else.
It is really hard to ignore, even when it is comparing apples to oranges, measuring someone else’s work.
Critiquer:Try to recognize that the story you are reading is distinct from your own writing. Consciously admitting that is important. It is going to make it easier to let go when the author makes choices you wouldn’t.
That doesn’t mean you don’t say what you’re thinking, point out the option you saw, talk about the thing that rubbed you the wrong way. If you can separate out a problem that is bigger than your opinion, do so – grammar, spelling, punctuation, character development, plot, etc. If you can’t, point it out anyway – the critee can decide if he/she agrees. But try to remember that if it isn’t some solid rule of the English language (and sometimes even if it is), right and wrong don’t enter into it. And as always, don’t stake your happiness on whether or not they take your advice.
Critiquee: Yes, you have your own voice. Trying too hard to write to other people’s tastes will probably result in stiff, derivative prose. But it is easy to fall into the trap of dismissing rephrasing suggestions or vague notes like “awkward” in the name of voice. Your voice requires development, just like every other aspect of writing – it doesn’t spring forth fully-formed and gleaming with glory. If you are too inflexible, you won’t learn what does and doesn’t work.
Unfortunately, it is really difficult to see these things in the moment. There have been instances when I am so unaware of how the words play outside my head that I pig-headedly ignore the excellent advice of my excellent critique group – only to flinch at the awkwardness during a later reading.
Time and multiple critiquers will help. Give yourself plenty of time between writing and rewriting so that some of the puppy-love can wear off. When you do sort through your notes, pay close attention if multiple people comment on the same thing or you have a strong negative reaction (I find when I read a comment and immediately want to scream WRONG! it is either abhorrent to my soul or absolutely spot-on). Consider every note seriously. You might still reject them, but at least you took some of the emotion out of the decision, and that’s usually the best you can do.
If you do find your text devolving as you work in suggestions from other people, you might need to give yourself permission to disagree. You have to have confidence in yourself and your words, enough to know whether a comment rings true to you or not. Sure, you run the risk of making the “wrong” decision – but this is art! It cannot be designed by committee, and it will not be yours until you learn to take risks.